While Newsom's campaign collects from developers, fallout from the Planning Department's internal porn investigation raises questions
A smaller project that has been in the works for years also seems close to home for Newsom. Michael Yarne, of the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, is a former director of development of the Martin Building Co., the lead developer on mixed-use residential project located in Central Waterfront at 2235 Third St. The project has commendable features such as a reuse of an existing industrial building, proximity to transit, and 39 below-market-rate units — and the project developer managed to secure an incredible deal with the city.
This past April, the Planning Commission approved an unprecedented in-kind agreement with Martin Building Co. that waived nearly $2 million in development fees, including about $1.2 million for 2235 Third St. and the rest for a second Martin Building Co. project on Townsend Street, in exchange for the developer's commitment to construct a space for a day-care facility on the Third Street site and lease that portion of the property to a childcare provider for free for 55 years. The provider would have to operate the facility without profit and would be required to have low-income child-care slots, so this bargain would serve to create affordable day care.
Yarne's close ties to the mayor and the developer — plus a $2,000 campaign contribution to Newsom from the head of the project's general contractor, a building company called Nibbi Bros. — could raise a few eyebrows in light of this unprecedented deal, especially given the city's gaping deficit and the question of how else that $2 million might have been put to use. The project was also awarded more than $1.6 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to excavate lead-contaminated soil from the property and transport it away for off-site disposal. The project, which has already been approved and moved to the Department of Building Inspection phase, also incorporates a City CarShare space. Yarne's on the board of City CarShare, too.
It's always possible that there is no connection between Newsom's campaign contributions, his personal staff, and contributors' connections to the myriad development projects in the hopper — but that doesn't stop observers from asking questions. Developers who are anxious about the economic downturn may be motivated do everything in their power to speed a project along, and it's possible that throwing money at a political campaign is just one tool among many.
Or maybe they just think Newsom would make a great lieutenant governor.
Nonetheless, the perception that certain developers get special treatment is shared by at least two former planners in the city's Planning Department — one of whom is facing termination in the wake of a recent investigation surrounding porn email.
Following an internal shake-up at the planning department triggered by the discovery that some staffers shared pornographic e-mails, messages started flying about what was behind the crackdown. "Porn is not the real story," Lois Scott, a retired planner and former president of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 wrote in an e-mail to the Guardian.
After the porn scandal broke, the hammer came down. Five people were terminated effective this past May, and another 20 or more reportedly faced some form of disciplinary action.
Some have interpreted the move as a signal that Planning Director John Rahaim, a Newsom appointee, won't stand for inappropriate conduct on his watch. At the same time, others have contacted the Guardian to voice concerns that the firings and internal shakeup were connected to something deeper than dirty emails.